Is Wayne Rooney really irreplaceable?

England have quailed for an international tournament under a cloud once more. Never capable of doing anything simply or without controversy, Wayne Rooney’s petulant and frankly idiotic dismissal away against Montenegro has left the country in a collective state as to how Capello’s charges can cope without Rooney for the first and possibly second and third group games. But is Rooney as indispensable and irreplaceable as has been made out?

It’s worth remembering amongst all the doom mongering that Capello’s England actually qualified top of the group and unbeaten. For a simple refusal to leak team sheets and indulge certain sections of the press, Capello is pilloried for being the exact thing that the press cried out for after the chummy and fawning ill-fated reign of Steve McClaren – an authoritarian leader.

Rooney’s influence, when he’s in form at least, is fantastic. His goals are not what he’s in the side for. While he may never be capable of being the deep lying instigator of attacks that he’s often tried to be in an England shirt, his link up play is magnificent and he sets the tempo of our attacks. Despite slowing down the play at times in Montenegro, he was still heavily involved in both of England’s goals.

Rooney’s record at international tournaments is incredibly patchy, though. Magnificent at Euro 2004 until injury saw him taken off in the eventual quarter-final loss to Portugal, he was then seen labouring at the World Cup in 2006 until he was dismissed for childishly lashing out to a Ricardo Carvalho challenge. Whereas 2006 Rooney’s race back to fitness dominated the headlines, at the 2010 World Cup, it was Rooney’s terrible form that drew concerns.

The sensationalist nature of the tabloids will tell you that England are doomed at Euro 2012 before it’s even started, particularly if Rooney is suspended for more than one game. But this running need to create excuses for our downfalls has been a recurrent theme since David Beckham dreaded metatarsal injury in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup – the red tops always require a soap opera to help shift copy. To plan for failure is wise, but to simply expect because of the absence of one player is downright foolish.

There appears to be a school of thought that places a lot of stock in ditching many of the experienced and wiser heads from the England squad in time for the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, simply because they’re not tainted by previous failures. Rooney’s absence may hasten such a revolution, with Capello admitting that the Man Utd man won’t be involved in any of the side’s warm-up games as the Italian bids to find a solution to his absence.

Before we get all misty-eyed about how good the England side are with Rooney in it, though, and revert to distorting history to suit our current predicament, it’s worth remembering that Rooney is just a culpable as anyone else of that great English disease – surrendering possession with regularity and ease.

He is without a doubt England’s finest player, the best of his generation, but is he as indispensable as has been declared in some quarters? Should England just throw in the towel before we’ve even gone a round?

There is certainly potential among the ranks to cover Rooney’s absence. Darren Bent is a natural finisher and a proven Premier League quality striker. He may not strike fear into the heart’s of the opposition’s defence, but he has a knack of being in the right place at the right time and could prove crucial in tight group games.

Daniel Welbeck has come on in leaps and bounds over the course of the last year. His ability in the air, versatility and pace are a real asset. Ashley Young’s delivery and ability to play ‘in the hole’ that Rooney’s absence creates are another option and the return of Liverpool skipper Steve Gerrard after a lengthy absence is a welcome boost. Quite how Daniel Sturridge is still without a call-up is beyond me and then there is always Andy Carroll at Liverpool, who if he can get a run of games and keep his fitness up, could be a handful. There are options already within the squad to more than cover his absence.

We cannot legislate for Rooney’s behaviour against Montenegro. To condemn his actions is entirely understandable, but to condemn is temperament now appears to border on the futile. A part of me dies every time that I hear a pundit trots out the quite sickeningly quixotic line ‘if you take away his aggression, you lose half of the player that Rooney is’. That’s simply not true. All you’ll end with is a disciplined player capable of staying on the pitch to help his team-mates when the going gets tough, not the petulant behaviour of a child willing to give into the first signs of provocation.

However, it’s unlikely that Rooney will ever be able to entirely rid himself of the demons that sometimes threaten to dominate his game. He’s always likely to be just a kick away from a red card, we always knew this about him, it’s simply a part of his game, so why the terribly damning reaction when all he does is merely confirm our long-held suspicions?

Despite all of this, it’s sensible to have a plan B in place, for placing all our eggs in Rooney’s basket has hardly served us well the past 2 international tournaments as it is and his absence may prove a blessing in disguise for the time being.

Rooney is England’s best player, but the lack of coherent plan if he isn’t playing well had held England back over the years and we’ve reverted to simply lumping the ball forward in the vague hope of creating a chance. He’s an excellent asset to have, but he’s not indispensable nor irreplaceable for a couple of games. No other well-respected European country bases their entire game-plan around just the one player, so why should we?

A permanent switch to the 4-3-3 that has served England so well in their away games this year could prove beneficial. The pace on the wings of Walcott and Young has been vital and Welbeck looks to have the temperament and movement to replace his Man Utd colleague, in the short-term at least.

It offers England a degree of fluidity and flexibility (if Walcott can actually be bothered to track back, that is). Wilshere and Parker are likely to be the fulcrum of the central midfield, with Gerrard thrown in for good attacking measure.

This England side are far from world beaters, but our hopes should not be extinguished on the basis of one act of stupidity. Rooney’s red card now provides Capello the perfect opportunity to formulate a real plan B for the first time while also simultaneously fanning the flames of the media’s OTT hyperbole.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1
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